Latest census data shows population shift toward NJ’s urban areas

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

It’s a fascinating look at New Jersey’s shifting population. NJ Spotlight’s Colleen O’Dea did the census analysis. She spoke to senior correspondent David Cruz about it.

Cruz: So this new census data is out. You guys did a deep dive. What pops out at you here?

O’Dea: There is a trend in New Jersey of folks moving out of the suburbs and back into the cities, which is of course reversal of what had happened for about four decades. I looked at some of the old data from the 1970 census, for instance, because that’s when a lot of the suburbanization really started happening. Newark’s population then was more than 380,000. Today, it is about 280,000. So, what happened during that time period is that population went down. In Jersey City as well. Jersey City’s was about 260,000. Now they are up to 264,000 because they kind of came back sooner with the development of the whole Gold Coast, that happened a lot sooner, and downtown Jersey City’s been booming. But what happened in not just those cities, but all over in the cities was population just decreased dramatically from the 70’s on and it’s just in the last decade that things have started to come back up. The millennials are largely responsible for that.

Cruz: For this move from the suburban to the urban.

O’Dea: Right. So these are folks who took time to get their driver’s licenses. They didn’t necessarily get it right away like I did when I was growing up. You wanted to get that license right on your birthday. These are guys who are not necessarily driving, they don’t necessarily like to drive. They like to take transit and they like to walk places. They like to live in a place like a Jersey City, a Newark and some of the smaller cities, Harrison. Harrison is just exploding.

Cruz: Well that’s the thing that jumped out at me. First, that 100,000 population drop from Newark is stunning to me. But the fact that Harrison now is the fastest growing city in the state, not just in Hudson County. We should say that Harrison is a small town, but they’ve seen a significant increase. What’s that all about?

O’Dea: That’s right. They kind of have it all. They are a small city, but they have a lot of land that can be redeveloped because they had some factories that went out. They’ve got a PATH station and that’s perfect because it’s about a 20 minute ride on the subway into New York City if you want to go there, and they’ve done that whole transit-oriented development where you are building not terribly high rises, but multistory buildings with units for many families right near the train stations. They also have shops and restaurants. So, they kind of have it all and this is what millennials are looking for.

Cruz: Coincidentally, the PATH station there is getting like a $200 million makeover, so that works well for them. We keep hearing politicians saying that people are leaving the state, but the population numbers don’t show that. Are people leaving the state, and if they are leaving the state, who’s coming in to make those numbers balance?

O’Dea: So, people are leaving the state. In most counties, there was a net migration out of New Jersey to elsewhere around the United States. What’s making up for that are births, which are outnumbering deaths, and immigration. We’re still a very popular and welcoming place for immigrants to come in. So, that’s really what’s fueling the change.

Cruz: And when we talk about immigrant migration into the state, are they mostly coming to urban areas in search of mass transit and more affordable housing?

O’Dea: Exactly. That’s exactly right. They are also looking for, often, communities that already exist. So, if you’re coming from a place like Colombia and you’ve heard that there’s a big Colombian population in Morristown, for example, you might want to go there because an uncle told you about it, or somebody else in your city told you about it. They’re looking for neighborhoods that already exist and that are largely in our cities and other urban areas and they are looking for mass transit because often when they come, they can’t afford the car right away. They don’t have necessarily that high-paying job to start off with.

Cruz: So, these numbers suggest also that if Jersey City continues on its present population trajectory, very soon they may become the largest city in the state for the first time since way back when we were kids.

O’Dea: Yes, but don’t count Newark out, because Mayor Baraka vowed he is not letting that happen and you know Newark is competing now. They’ve got a lot of building going on, they have a lot of residential construction. So it’s interesting.

Cruz: It is a large city in terms of square mileage. So, there’s a lot more capacity built into Newark right now.

O’Dea: Sure. And there’s a lot of areas for redevelopment. There’s a lot of opportunities here, and Newark is a little bit cheaper than Jersey City. So it’s got a lot going for it.

Cruz: So, would you say that these figures suggest robust growth for the state? Does it paint a positive picture of how things are going in the state?

O’Dea: It’s a positive picture. It’s not robust because there are many states that are growing faster, but there are some places that are not growing across the country. Unfortunately for us, when we get to talking about politics, if our population is not growing as fast as a place like a Texas or some of the other places in the south, could we wind up losing another seat as we have done? We have lost three seats in the last four decades, I think. We were at 15 House members at one point, we’re down to 12 now. So, it’s good that we’re growing but we aren’t growing as fast as some other places.